Is Lyme disease following the ticks that spread it across the US?

Posted By Daniel On September 16, 2009 - 9:00pm
Is Lyme disease following the ticks that spread it across the US?

Potentially debilitating Lyme disease doesn't afflict people everywhere that the ticks harboring it are found. At least not yet. A five-university consortium led by a Michigan State University researcher wants to find out why.

"These ticks are on the move. As ticks expand into new areas, more people will likely become infected," said MSU fisheries and wildlife assistant professor Jean Tsao, who will lead the four-year, $2.5 million study.

Michigan State University researchers check forest animals for ticks.

(Photo Credit: Jean Tsao, Michigan State University)

"We have a really intriguing scientific puzzle to solve – many factors change as we move from north to south, and we need to be smart with our study design to unravel these," she said. "Our study also has practical goals – we aim to provide the health community and the public in the various states with some reassurance, or warning, about what their future will hold for spread of Lyme disease. Understanding the reasons why Lyme disease is such a problem in some areas will help us manage the disease better, and lower the risk to human health."

In 30 years, the tiny blacklegged tick has cut a huge swath through 10 northern states by carrying a bacterial infection now annually afflicting more than 20,000 North Americans. Curiously, the same parasite commonly known as the deer tick also is found in southern states, where Lyme disease is comparatively rare.

"Researchers do not know how climate, vertebrate biodiversity, tick genetics or other factors affect the maintenance of the pathogen and its relative abundance in an area," Tsao said. "So as the ticks spread, will tick populations in new areas be infected like northern populations or mainly clean of infection like southern populations?"

This is Michigan State University researcher Jean Tsao.

(Photo Credit: Michigan State University)

The disease has a range of symptoms including rash, fatigue, joint aches and shooting pain, and now is widespread in Minnesota and Wisconsin and along the northeastern seaboard.

Tsao and colleagues are looking into potential new explanations for the uneven incidence of Lyme disease. The researchers plan to study how various ecological factors affect the Lyme disease cycle by simultaneously applying standardized survey methods at 12 sites spanning Massachusetts to Georgia and Minnesota to Mississippi.

This penny shows the relative size of a tick.

(Photo Credit: Graham Hickling, University of Tennessee.)